After the massive success of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes in 1968, Fox released a sequel every year between 1970 and 1973. None of them ever match the greatness of the Charlton Heston-led original, they each have their own merits, and the series itself has an overarching social consciousness. Beneath the Planet of the Apes deals with those warmongers human and ape alike – with a group of mutated humans who worship an atomic bomb, in case you missed the subtlety – which results in the destruction of the world, again. Escape from the Planet of the Apes carries with it a theme of man’s arrogance and the inevitability of a future conflict because of that arrogance. Maybe that feeling of inevitability that permeates over Escape is due to a pre-planned sequel, but the inevitable occurs in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as the apes violently take over man’s domain.
For a series with nothing but downer endings, Escape was particularly bleak. Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter), the apes from the future who traveled back to 1973, are brutally executed, as well as a baby chimp thought to be their offspring which would bring about – duh duh dun! – the Planet of the Apes. A local circus owner, Armando (Ricardo Montalban), has swapped a baby chimp born in his circus with the progeny of the talking apes. Conquest takes place in 1991, 14 years after the events of Escape. The time-traveling apes had brought with them a virus which had killed all the dogs and cats in the world by 1983. In the intervening years apes were first taken in as pets, their ability to learn slowly morphs into a class of primate slaves.
Armando show Caesar this world for the first time, having been previously sheltered the horrors while traveling with the circus. Aghast, Caesar can’t hold back his emotions and screams, “Lousy human bastards!” This utterance causes a stir and Armando only has a chance to let Caesar loose before being apprehended by the city’s fascist force. While Armando is subject to endless interrogation, Caesar is forced to go through ape training, only to be sold to the highest bidder. When Caesar overhears of Armando’s death while trying to escape, he begins overseeing a non-violent resistance. Eventually Caesar is captured and tortured, and though he’s kept alive with the help of the human MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), he leads a violent revolt – the foundations of an ape society.
The film was intended to have a much darker ending than the one it features. In the original version, the apes bludgeon Governor Breck (Don Murray), the brutal dictator of Century City, to death, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence. The brutalized have become the brutalizer. For reasons related to its MPAA rating, Conquest features a lighter, but still a bit of a downer, ending. Having taken control of the city which burns behind him, Caesar spares the lives of his tormentors only to declare that the world now belongs to apes.
Filmed in futuristic Century City, Conquest draws heavily on the national shame of slavery and institutionalized racism. However, it uses these atrocities as inspiration, not allegory. The authority figures of this dystopia wear fascist duds and oppress free speech – a number of disgruntled labors are protesting being replaced by apes. By the end of the film, we’re clearly rooting for the apes. It makes you forget about the horrors that Heston’s Taylor went through in the first one. The series’ cyclical timeline also allows a cyclical sense of hate and destruction – though the 5th film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, breaks this with a happy conclusion to the series, and legendary director John Huston in ape makeup.
Roddy McDowall appears in 4 of the 5 original Apes films (he was unavailable for Beneath), as well as the television series. Though his character, Cornelius, was brutally murdered in Escape, he was brought back to play his own son in Conquest. McDowall gives his finest performance in the ape makeup. As Caesar, McDowall shifts from inquisitive to scared, from sadness to pure rage, en route to becoming a simian Spartacus. Also appearing in 4 of the 5 Apes films (she wasn’t in the original) is Natalie Trundy. Having the distinct honor of playing a human in her first two appearances, Trundy dons the ape makeup for the first time as Lisa, Caesar’s love interest.
J. Lee Thomspon, director of Cape Fear and Guns of the Navarone, would helm this and the final sequel, Battle. As is the case with each of the Apes sequels, Paul Dehn worked on the script. While certainly not a perfect film, Conquest’s running time and narrative are lean, the action always hurtling forward. Conquest laid the foundation for the original series’ resolution, and would serve as a blueprint for reestablishing the series. With Rise and Dawn, the Apes franchise is reinvigorated with a pair of smart, technically advanced, and socially aware films. And like the two most recent films, Conquest gets the audience to openly root for the end of mankind’s reign. The king is dead. Long live the king.